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Toolbox New Products for IT Pros
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Microsoft. All prices were confirmed January 12, 2009, and are subject to change.
Tweak Your System
TuneUp Utilities 2009
As an IT professional, you most likely feel the desire to tweak and tune your machine to run as optimally as possible for your specific working style. What is probably of little or no concern to the standard user may be irritating to you, since you have a greater sense of what is going on under the covers.
One toolset that has been around for years, giving you an easy-to-use and reliable tuning, is TuneUp Software's TuneUp Utilities 2009.
The German company has had almost yearly upgrades to its TuneUp Utilities product since its first release in 1997. The latest version has a polished UI and is designed for Windows XP and Windows Vista (both 32- and 64-bit versions).
One cool part of the toolset is the Speed Optimizer, which performs a number of tests and asks you questions about your daily routine. It will then tweak and tune things such as your display settings, network stack, and so on to meet your particular needs.
The tool will also suggest to group and remove items from your startup, scheduling a task to check for application updates rather than having 907 different auto-updaters running in your task bar (this is only a slightly exaggerated number).
TuneUp Utilities also touts a one-click maintenance feature, which automates some of the toolset's tasks, removing temporary files, defragmenting hard disks, cleaning up the registry, and cleaning up your desktop on a scheduled basis without you having to intervene.
Beyond those automated features, the application lets you tweak individual items via its various tool UIs. The tools are split into six groups: Increase performance, Free up disk space, Clean up Windows, Solve problems, Customize Windows, and Additional tools.
Within the first group of tools, you can defragment your drives, compact and clean your registry, prune which applications run at machine startup, and launch the Speed Optimizer. One nice thing about the startup pruning capabilities is that you don't have to delete the items—you can just "switch" them off. The utility also conveniently groups the items into required, optional, and not needed so you can feel more confident about turning off less useful items.
The second group of tools, Free up disk space, lets you wipe temporary files and redundant backups as well as trim unneeded components from Windows. Or, you can use the Disk Space Explorer to see what types of files are eating up the space on your drives. This is a great way to find old ISOs and "hidden" MP3 collections on your machines.
In the Clean up Windows group, you can run or configure settings for the one-click maintenance feature, as well as search for and remove invalid shortcuts on your Desktop, Start menu, history lists, and quick launch bar. You can also see what is installed on your system and correct detected registry errors.
The Solve problems group provides tools that you can use to undelete files and folders, check for file system errors, fix physical disk errors, repair context menu items, restore standard desktop icons (such as the recycle bin), and add the display desktop icon back to the quick launch bar.
The fifth section, Customize Windows, lets you tweak the visual styles of Windows. You can, for example, configure icon sets, logon and boot screens, fonts, menu effects, and the general look of application and dialog windows. From within the UI, you can also browse free boot screens, icon sets, and other elements available from the TuneUp Web site and easily add them to your own list of available options.
Within this same group of tools, you can also turn off network resource scans, such as Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) and network shares, as well as stop automatic printer detection to speed up your computer's connect times.
The last group, Additional tools, gives you a direct registry editor, a graphical process manager, an uber-delete shredder (to obliterate files and folders), and a general hardware and software configuration system summary tool.
TuneUp Utilities is packed with tweaking tools, offering users a convenient and easy-to-access set of utilities. So if you want an easy toolset without sacrificing any features, take a look at TuneUp Utilities 2009.
Price: $49.95 (direct)
Tweak your system with TuneUp Utilities (Click the image for a larger view)
Configuration Manager 2007 Administrator’s Companion
Maintaining slews of servers, desktops, laptops, and mobile devices across the enterprise is not an easy task. Getting machines up to date without interfering with corporate workflow is a bear, and undoubtedly the number of configurations you have to support expands with the size of the company.
To help ease deployment, configuration, and updates across the enterprise, Microsoft has System Center Configuration Manager (ConfigMgr) 2007, now in R2. You might want to take a look at Steven D. Kaczmarek's Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager 2007 Administrator's Companion (Microsoft Press, 2008) to get up to speed and fully understand all the bells and whistles (and, well, limitations) of ConfigMgr. Kaczmarek has worked closely with the System Center Configuration Manager team to give you the knowledge you need to use the product effectively.
The three main sections of the book tie nicely to the lifecycle of a ConfigMgr deployment: "Planning, Deploying, and Configuring," "Managing Clients," and "Site Database Management."
The book begins with an overview of the new and enhanced features of ConfigMgr 2007 as compared to previous versions, as well as an overview of the key components that comprise a ConfigMgr deployment. Then, following the old adage of "measure twice, cut once," the book discusses planning for an installation and getting the software installed in a test lab to familiarize yourself with all its options. Here you also learn useful tidbits such as the different ways in which you can deploy the client agents in your environment.
You can then read about configuring your installation, covering such topics as how to set up different distribution points for your package deployments. To help you learn how to utilize ConfigMgr 2007 in large environments, the book introduces multiple site structures and explains the parent-child nature of site hierarchies. Here you also learn about some of the performance, geographic, and Active Directory considerations for a site hierarchy. This part of the book ends with a look at the numerous analysis and troubleshooting tools available with ConfigMgr 2007, such as the status messages, queries, and the Configuration Manager Service Manager and System Monitor.
The second section of the book covers client management, beginning with more in-depth coverage of resource discovery and client installation. Within this section, you can see how to collect hardware and software inventory information into the central repository as well as how to generate asset reports. And you learn how to distribute software packages and how to create your own custom software packages from the ground up.
It seems today that every piece of software is updating almost every week and controlling those updates can be a burden. The book shows how you can deploy software updates in a controlled manner in your environment, ensuring only the necessary and required updates are installed based on the current state of your client machines. Of course, ConfigMgr isn't just limited to application installations and updates; the book also discusses how to deploy operating systems via an image in addition to the new system configuration management options available.
The third part of the book focuses on the central repository of a ConfigMgr 2007 installation. Here you learn how to query and generate reports from the data as well as create dashboards. There is also a good chapter on securing your environment, from network and account security controls to public key infrastructure (PKI) and certificates. Losing all that data would be tragic, and so the book ends with a couple of chapters on backup and recovery, showing you what maintenance tasks are involved in a ConfigMgr deployment as well as how to maintain the database through SQL Server management tools.
This, of course, only scratches the surface of what this book offers. ConfigMgr 2007 has many features and can really help you maintain control of your environment. But you'll need to know how to use it—and this book can help.
Price: $59.99 (list).
Fix Configuration Errors
When things start to go awry on a machine, one of your first thoughts is probably "Oh, no—a virus." If you're confident in your user's antivirus software, the next thought is probably "Great, what phishing site have they visited now?" Or perhaps, "What program has he installed now that is messing up the system?" One tried-and-true utility that can help you diagnose a suspicious quirk on a machine is Trend Micro's free HijackThis tool.
HijackThis looks at common system settings, indicating those that may have been tampered with at some point since the system was installed. It reports on registry settings, host file entries, browser helper objects (BHOs), startup application lists, extra buttons within applications, scheduled tasks, services running on the machine, and more. Because the app doesn't give you an explicit indication of whether a modification is good or bad, you will likely want to keep this tool out of the hands of your general users. The TrendMicro Web site has a forum dedicated to HijackThis. There you can peruse or upload questionable finds from the program's search to gather information about the use and potential destructiveness of HijackThis.
The utility works on all desktop flavors of Windows from Windows 98 through Windows Vista. It's lightweight and requires no registry modifications, or installation. Download it with an installer as a simple zipped set of files or as an executable that runs directly on your machine.
Using HijackThis is simple. Launch the executable and select either "scan and save a logfile" or "scan only" to see what modifications it finds on the local system. You can back up current settings to ensure you can roll back changes should you make a mistake while trying to clean up a system.
If you use the application frequently or bring it around with you on your disk of troubleshooting utilities, you can also choose to add items to an ignore list so they won't occlude your view of potential issues, speeding up your analysis.
If you decide to "fix" an item, HijackThis will then either delete or restore the setting to default. In addition to that main functionality, HijackThis has a miscellaneous tools section with helpers, such as a simple process manager, a quick link to edit host files and the Add/Remove Programs panel, and an easy way to delete a file on reboot that can't be removed from memory. This is certainly a handy tool for IT pros, and the price can't be beat.
Find and fix problems with HijackThis (Click the image for a larger view)
Audit System Configurations
Knowing who's got what on which system without leaving your desk is an invaluable time-saver for a systems administrator (though I do recommend leaving your desk once in a while for your physical and mental health). The ability to compare a set of systems easily offers a great way for you to double-check installations and system configurations. This is also a good way to confirm the deployment of patches, group policy settings, and the like. One tool I find valuable for doing these sorts of tasks is SysCompare Pro from MTM Software.
After installing SysCompare, scan the target systems on your network by adding them individually by name with an IP address or by browsing Active Directory for the systems in which you are interested. Unfortunately, there is no way to import a list of computers from a file. But once you have added all your target machines, you can save the scans for reuse at a later time.
Once a scan is completed, the results are grouped into two categories: hardware and software. In terms of hardware, SysCompare scans general system information, such as BIOS type and version, system manufacturer and model, and hardware system type (such as x64). You can also view details about the processor, network adapter, logical and physical disks, and memory configuration. You can even retrieve information about all of the Plug-n-Play devices on the target system and what printers are currently set up on the machine. A particularly useful indicator will provide a list of any devices on the machine that are in a "problem" state. This could be due for example, to a bad driver or a hardware error.
The software category presents information about the operating system, including such details as which service packs have been applied, the current data execution-prevention settings, page-file settings, environment variables, shares, version and build numbers, and the current startup options. You can also see service and process details—such as the current state, the display name, and the real executable name— as well as the executing context. And the software category provides a quick listing of which applications run at startup and the current set of installed applications on the system—some useful information to have at you disposal when comparing systems and troubleshooting.
Within the UI, the results panes for the hardware and software details are presented in a familiar data-grid format, and you can group the information by column header. You can also export the data directly to Microsoft Office Excel for reporting and general reuse.
Aside from identifying individual machine components, one of the most useful features of this utility is the ability to compare differences between a set of systems. This allows you to see quickly, for example, which machines are out of date or have been configured with the wrong memory or have additional (unsupported) applications installed by the user.
If you are looking for a quick and simple tool for performing system audits and comparing configurations, you might want to take a look at SysCompare Pro. It isn't the cheapest utility, but you get a company-wide license and a lot of bang for your buck. A Lite version (very lite) is available for $99 and free licenses of the Pro version are available to qualified educational institutions.
Price: $1,499 (direct) to purchase a company-wide license.
Audit and compare systems with SysCompare Pro (Click the image for a larger view)
Greg Steen is a technology professional, entrepreneur, and enthusiast. He is always on the hunt for new tools to help make operations, QA, and development easier for the IT professional.